Suicide Rivals The Battlefield In Toll On U.S. Military Alarmed at the growing rate of soldiers taking their own lives, the Army has begun investigating its mental health and suicide prevention programs. It is part of a greater awareness of the problem by all branches of the military. But the tougher challenge is changing a culture that is very much about "manning up" when things get difficult.

Suicide Rivals The Battlefield In Toll On U.S. Military

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This morning, we're going to look at why so many serving in uniform have taken their own lives, and what the Army is doing to prevent more deaths. NPR's Jamie Tarabay has the story of one soldier and the father he left behind.

JAMIE TARABAY: Edward Colley has told the story of his son's suicide so often, he sounds almost matter of fact.

AMOS: I'm Ed Colley. I'm the father of Stephen Colley, private first class, United States Army. Stephen committed suicide three years ago, in May of 2007.

TARABAY: The last time Colley saw his son was at a family gathering in April 2007. Stephen, a helicopter mechanic, had been back in the country for about five months since a tour in Iraq. Colley says Stephen was detached. He spent the days watching cartoons. He fought with his wife.

AMOS: When they went back to Texas, she never went home with him. She went to her parents' house, and he went back to work.

TARABAY: From there, it was a downhill stumble, struggling in a work environment an Army investigation later called hostile. On May 16, 2007, home alone, Stephen Colley argued with his wife through text messages. Edward Colley says at one point, his son asked her if there was rope in the storage shed.

AMOS: He had texted his wife that suicide was an option. She immediately called the appropriate folks at the base, but Stephen - unfortunately in this case, Stephen was a very, very smart boy. And he had figured out how to make sure that nobody else would interfere with his plan.

TARABAY: The day before he killed himself, Stephen Colley took an Army mental health assessment - multiple-choice questions, including some about intent to harm yourself. There were four possible answers.

AMOS: And he picked the most severe: that he was thinking about committing suicide more than half the time.

TARABAY: And instead of acting on that information, the social worker who did Stephen Colley's assessment put him down for a sleep study in three weeks' time. The Army's own investigation said the established procedures failed to address his mental condition.

Q: If Pfc. Colley was admitted to the emergency room following the mental screening, it's unlikely the suicide would have occurred.

G: Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. I'd like to welcome you once again to the April senior review group.

TARABAY: Last year, that number was 245. This year, through May, it's already 163. The Army has instituted all manner of programs to counsel and train soldiers. Stephen Colley had himself undergone suicide-prevention training. Yet the suicides continue.

G: We have 45 active-duty suicides. We have 13 confirmed and 32 pending.

TARABAY: General Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, heads the monthly meeting. The group looks into every investigation. There's no main cause. For every PTSD-suffering soldier who takes his own life, there's a young recruit who's never been deployed, moves to a new unit, and can't handle it. There's no simple answer.

C: It doesn't exist.

TARABAY: Colonel Chris Philbrick heads the Army's suicide prevention task force.

C: The trends that we see are white male, but most of the Army is made up of white males. We see young soldiers. Most of the Army's made up of young soldiers. So as quickly as you could point at something, you can then come back and say, but that's who we are.

TARABAY: There may be no obvious patterns, but there are warning signs, and hindsight reveals so much. Throughout that two-hour Army review meeting, detail upon detail present portraits of troubled men. One soldier was on at least 12 different medications; another was in relationship counseling and had severe alcoholism issues. One soldier was diagnosed with both depression and bipolar disorder, was medicated, and then deployed to Iraq.

AMOS: the endless deployments.

G: I think that you'd have to have your head buried in the sand to not think that a lot of them come out of eight and a half years of war.

TARABAY: Another theory? Soldiers in transition - moving from a combat zone to back home, for example - are at risk. Many cases appear to involve both alcohol and overdose of medication. And for the most part, they speak to the Army's inability to deal with mental-health issues.

C: Absolutely. Guilty as charged.

TARABAY: Colonel Philbrick slaps his hand on his desk.

C: I'm certain that there are soldiers that we did not properly treat in the long period of time since we started combat operations, that if we had done a better job and had been able to recognize that - wouldn't be where they're at today: in Walter Reed, and on a street corner somewhere because they haven't been taken care of.

TARABAY: Philbrick says the Army took too long to recognize it had a crisis on its hands. And, he says, it was dismissive.

C: What did we do? What did the Army normally do when there was soldiers with problems we didn't understand? Thank you for your service; go find someplace else to work. We're making those changes.

TARABAY: Military psychiatrist Stephen Xenakis, a retired brigadier general, says there's more that needs to be done.

AMOS: There's a whole culture change that would really need to occur at the bases here in the United States. And it may not be for two or three years until we really recognize that.

TARABAY: Recognize that change must happen in the units, not just in the Pentagon. And Xenakis also recommends tracking things like DUIs, discipline problems - things that could be potential red flags, the sorts of things that might have alerted commanders to Stephen Colley's situation.

AMOS: It's a great system. And properly done, it saves lives.

TARABAY: That's Stephen's father, Edward Colley. He's retired Air Force and Army. He has two other children in the military. And he and his wife have three more, younger kids.

AMOS: Mom prohibits the younger ones from joining the military now. You might understand that prohibition now in our house.

TARABAY: Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.

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